The Story of Self-Publishing (Part Two): Follow the Money

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Earlier this year, NPR featured a podcast roundtable wherein four authors tackled the question: Is Amazon The Reader’s Friend? Generally speaking, the debate has been framed in terms of how Amazon is disrupting traditional publishing practices. Technologically speaking, disruption is often the result of innovation and consumers benefit because products or services are streamlined, reimagined or otherwise improved. Predictably, there’s been no shortage of stories portraying Amazon as Evil incarnate, but not nearly enough pondering the ways Amazon has radically disrupted — for the better — the landscape for both writers and readers.

This has triggered a great deal of confusion and, in my opinion, intentional obfuscation and ill-will surrounding the all-or-nothing proposition of Amazon as friend or foe. The simple solution is that instead of fearing this dichotomy; we can and should embrace it. Amazon, it seems, is now being blamed for everything from the disappearance of bookstores to the proliferation of inferior product. No less a literary genius (and one-time progressive thinker) than Ursula K. Le Guin has entered the fray, recently opining that “every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”

Wow. Hyperbole and hysteria aside, Le Guin is scarcely the only renowned author suddenly perplexed by the ostensible threat presented by the same site she curiously has not removed her books from. This kind of hypocrisy certainly complicates the issue, and reminds us that, as always, to find an answer one must follow the money. As such, and put plainly as possible, Amazon is most definitely the reader’s friend. Perhaps more importantly, Amazon has emerged as possibly the best friend for writers in the history of book publishing.

To expand on a point made in my previous post, I believe it’s important to assess the spurious notion that too many choices and too much product is conceivably a bad thing. Has the advent of self-publishing, abetted by eBooks in general and Amazon in particular, simply inundated the market with shoddy merchandise? Even if we concede that the answer is yes, it’s a question best addressed with another question: Who cares? Besides, it’s the question itself that’s deliberately disingenuous, posed by traditional industry gatekeepers and elitists, in full concern troll mode.

The implication that this democratization of content unleashes an unreadable tsunami upon an innocent and unsuspecting populace is to deny that American culture has forever had a surfeit of drivel polluting the airwaves, movie theatres and, yes, bookstores. Thus, the only people truly apprehensive about the ascension of self-publishing are the ones accustomed to owning the lion’s share of control — and profits. Consider how insulting it is for anyone to claim that you don’t know what type of books (or music) you’re likely to enjoy and willing to discover. Or, does anyone wish to return to the rigged-game era when CDs with one hit song cost twenty bucks or hardcovers cost whatever the big publishing houses (that took the majority of the spoils, incidentally) deemed appropriate?

Follow the money…

Even the folks insisting that the transparent (ha) and equitable (ha!) old model of how books were acquired, produced and sold are avoiding the inconvenient fact that traditional publishing was on life support long before Amazon introduced the Kindle. Harry Bingham, guest-blogging on Jane Friedman’s invaluable site, has a take on the contemporary state of affairs that’s at once enlightening and unnerving. He describes some of the obvious, inevitable reasons authors, like himself, are making the conscious decision to leave their publishers to go the independent route.

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Follow the money? Well, yes, but that’s only part of the story.

As any writer (or reader, for that matter) knows, book reviews are disappearing as quickly as the magazines and newspapers they were once printed in. At the same time, advances and any measure of marketing or promotional support are increasingly archaic notions, even for established authors. As such, since publishers and traditional media have offered little to fill this void, we should celebrate the rise of bloggers and autonomous websites that help curate and recommend content. Even, perhaps especially old school fans of books and the so-called good old days ought to revel in the breadth of options available for encountering first-rate writing. These alternatives are saving literature, not imperilling it. In the meantime, the traditional paradigm can putter along, serving whomever it chooses (and whomever chooses it); all of these possibilities constitute, at worst, a win/win.

Speaking of money, we should also acknowledge that for perfectly understandable reasons, the bandwagon effect has always been a prevailing force in American pop culture (zombies and vampires, anyone?). What would you rather trust in 2015: ten — or twenty, or two hundred — positive and articulate customer reviews at Amazon, or a pre-packaged product vetted and greenlighted by clueless businessmen in a boardroom? For all their complaints, the big publishers are making more money than ever; it’s often the authors who are getting short-shrift. And anyone inside or outside the business insisting that Traditional Publishing puts integrity before earnings and has the future of Literature-with-a-capital-L foremost in their hearts and minds need look only at the New York Times bestseller list.

Once again, the book publishing arena is simply mirroring what’s already happened in the music industry. Or, for that matter, lessons learned in the motion picture industry during the early ‘70s: with a paltry budget and outsiders behind the scenes, Easy Rider went on to become the third-highest grossing film of 1969. This aesthetic — and financial — milestone instigated a genuine transformation, granting legitimacy to the rise of independent filmmaking that dominated the next decade. Not for nothing were some of the most acclaimed movies in American history made throughout the ‘70s. The key takeaway being that the studio bosses didn’t suddenly decide fresh new voices were needed and could benefit from big studio backing. Only once it appeared money could be made did they, however cynically or shrewdly, get on board with this decidedly unconventional approach. Artists and audiences won.

And so, aside from the environmentally-friendly opportunities POD provides (how many forests has digital ink already preserved?), if just one worthy writer gets discovered — who may otherwise have languished in the slush pile — does it not obviate the sound and fury of all this hand wringing? Plus, putting faith in the literary community promises a candor and integrity sorely lacking from the inside-the-industry clique: if readers don’t like a book, they’re unlikely to recommend it. More, they’ll never even know about it in the first place. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable.

The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

*This post originally appeared in The Independent Publishing Magazine 8/13/15.

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The Story of Self-Publishing (Part One): Past is Prologue

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In my role as an industry analyst for the tech industry I’ve followed the developments of our shifting cultural landscape with keen professional as well as personal interest. In particular, I’ve noted the ways the book publishing industry is, in many regards, mirroring what’s happened (and what’s still unfolding) in the music industry. The hot topic du jour is whether streamed services are saviors or disruptors as they relate to the evolution of music in particular and content in general. In my opinion, they are a bit of both, but practically every innovation in each industry has been. Furthermore, I suspect history will look more favorably on these services than we might imagine today.

During the last decade advancements that, I maintain, benefit artists and consumers, have all revolved around the democratization of content. What does that mean? In brief, it no longer requires archaic and expensive technologies and processes to make and acquire works of art.

As difficult as it might be for younger consumers to appreciate, the home audio business remained relatively uncomplicated for the better part of a century. The book publishing industry operated according to a fairly specific—and consistent—model for hundreds of years. Naturally the Internet came and changed everything. In the bad old days, gatekeepers held sway, overseeing the acquisition, creation and dissemination of content. These days, artists have the ability, and resulting channels, to create, distribute and promote their work.

I am old school enough to remember typewriters. More, I used them. More still, I took a class once that, in hindsight, was perhaps the most important—or at least most practical—one from my high school years. Flash forward through college (word processor), graduate school (a PC I could access only in a computer lab) to my first computer—a miracle with a printer that could produce dot matrix pages in sixty seconds, per page. Eventually I began writing for an online-only magazine, and finally created an obligatory blog. Then e-readers came along and eventually, tablets.

As an avid (if obsessive) reader and music aficionado, I have embraced each stage of progress as it relates to the ways content is made, purchased and utilized. These innovations have inexorably made it easier and more affordable to engage with our world; indeed they have opened up or created entirely new worlds. Throw in the marketing miracles inherent in social media and the people—not the self-appointed or well-connected tastemakers—are now equal, arguably more important arbiters of what matters and what is relevant. This is a very good thing.

In my capacity as a music critic, I used to receive the occasional (now, more frequent) request from musicians, asking me to consider their work. Initially, they would offer to send a self-produced CD; these days they’ll lead me to their website, where sample files are accessible. Of course, stories like this are becoming the new normal: despite what myopic naysayers stuck in the past insist, there is more incredible art being made today than most of us could hope to keep up with. As usual, the only ones lamenting these developments are the same sorts who always resist or stifle progress. These are the same folks who benefited, unfairly, from the rigged rules of the antiquated, imbalanced system.

In 2013 I made the decision, like so many musicians and, more recently writers, to go the independent route. Along the way, I’ve collected more rejection letters than I could count, but I’ve also seen the 20th century SOP steadily disappear as an unhappy memory. Today, just about anyone can publish a book, and a lot of people are trying. Does this potentially flood the market with inferior product? Certainly. Does it also ensure that more writers (and musicians, and movie makers) have the opportunity to be heard and discovered? Without doubt.

The good news: with sufficient ability, awareness and time, anyone can publish without paying for it or surviving the scrutiny of hit-seeking middlemen. The bad news: as liberating as this new DIY ethos is, the onus is now entirely on the artist. As such, I necessarily became acquainted with the nuts and bolts of creating a book, taking an idea all the way from legal pad to Amazon. Suffice it to say, this demands a proficiency at production, distribution and marketing.

The bottom line? This process represents the very essence of innovation, in actual practice. If you want it done, do it yourself. If you want it done well, understand and learn all the things you do not know. In halcyon times, writing a book was itself the hard part, and pretty much the only thing an author controlled. Too many authors had to hope that their publisher could generate sufficient interest, garner reviews, set up a book tour, etc. If that didn’t happen, there were few options other than luck or a miraculous endorsement from Oprah.

Today, even taking the independent route will cost you money (unless you happen to be a book designer, website builder and professional editor). On the other hand, it cost you money back in the day, as well: those advances given to authors were typically contingent upon future sales and the cost of assembly; editing and distribution were factored in on the front-end. I worked with the appropriate people, and worked on my game-plan with every spare second I could afford. Without a publisher or promoter I secured my own blurbs and booked my own reading events. No one to answer to but myself: equal parts miracle and mountain to climb. It’s beyond what I could have imagined, and just the way I would have imagined it, in some implausible future.

That future is real and it is now; in fact, milestones being made this moment will already be surpassed tomorrow. In the past I celebrated certain advancements from the sidelines, in solidarity. As I watch, and experience, the empowering mechanisms of innovation create previously unimaginable opportunities, I understand it’s now also the story of my life.

*This post originally appeared at The Independent Publishing Magazine on 8/5/15.

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